“Why is he here?”  Sinead looked daggers at Mike, not for the first time that evening – and definitely not for the last.  Without taking his hand off his pint glass, Mike turned to look over his shoulder at the middle-aged gentleman at the next table.   Narrowing his eyes, as he always did when assessing a situation however trivial or insignificant, Mike took in the bus driver’s uniform, the bags beneath his eyes, the limp chips smothered in mayonnaise, the well-thumbed copy of The Quiet American, and the empty seat opposite, before slickly rotating back into position to face his colleague once more.

“Well, Sinead,” he began, “I’d say that he’s finally come off shift for the day and is taking a moment to grab a reassuring pint, a bite to eat and a rare few minutes of peace to peruse his latest library book before heading back to his flat to bed down before the routine begins all over tomorrow morning at the bus station at seven o’clock sharp.  Surely a hard-working man’s entitled to that?”  Mike swigged back his beer, spilling most of it down his top but hoping that Sinead hadn’t noticed and his suave and sophisticated image remained intact.  Sinead was unimpressed.

“No, you dolt – not him.  Him.”  Following the line of the finger that pointed over his other shoulder, Mike swivelled on the stool to see Wally from the Where’s Wally? series of books slumped at the bar with a bowl of peanuts and a Guinness.  Mike thought for a moment, surveyed the well-used walking stick, the highly polished spectacles, the black key with the huge handle, the completely-not-out-of-place-at-all scarlet-ribboned scroll, and the barely visible red-and-white-striped tail of Woof, and then returned to face Sinead once more.  In one fluid motion he raised his eyebrows, turned down the corners of his mouth and offered up a shrug of his shoulders.  “Haven’t the foggiest,” he confessed.

Sinead frowned.  “I just don’t get it – there must be only, what, ten, twelve people in this bar.  Normally Wally only hangs out in crowds of fifty, sixty – plus.”  “Yeah, and they’re usually pirates or space monsters or cavemen or something – not bus drivers, sales managers and incompetent cashiers.”  “Careful now.  Anyway, you’re wrong – the first couple of Wally books were full of ordinary scenarios – street scenes, beaches, First World War trenches.”  Mike recognised the validity of the comment with a tip of his invisible hat and another sip of his ale, which mainly went up his nose and wept out of his eyes.  Glancing once more at the forlorn bobble-hatted figure he suggested to Sinead that maybe he ought to ask Wally what was up.

“Seriously?  Mike, that is such a breach of Wally etiquette.  You don’t ask Wally why he’s in a certain place.  You just find him and accept the fact that he’s there.  He has his reasons, sure – but exactly what they are is his business and his alone.”  “He could be a spy.”  “What?”

Sinead stared across at Mike waiting for him to explain.  Mike savoured the moment and leered gormlessly back before realising that wasn’t the face he’d intended to pull and hurriedly rearranging his features into what he considered a cooler expression, but was in fact ‘creepy psycho’.  Coughing to hide his embarrassment, he went on: “Look, nobody knows why Wally turns up in these places.  He doesn’t say, he doesn’t apply for visas or show his passport or anything like that; nobody thinks to ask him what he’s doing in a place – what if he’s on an information-gathering mission for a third party?  A foreign agency, an underground movement, an apocalyptic cult…  He’s perfectly positioned to courier sensitive or compromising information in or out of any location – because people always expect to see him there.  Even if it’s the middle of a desert, or a movie studio, or a stripy room full of other people that look a lot like him but differ in just one frustratingly difficult-to-spot detail – wherever he is, we just accept the fact that ‘there he is!’  What fools!  For years, nobody has suspected anything – his rucksack must be full of government secrets.  He’s the perfect spy!”

“He’s coming over.”  “What?”  Sinead gestured with a nod as she buried her mouth in her wine glass.  Sure enough Wally had got up from his seat and was about to walk past them, probably to the gents – or the itbox.  Without thinking Mike quickly stood up, catching Wally by surprise and halting him in his tracks.  The seconds of silence that passed felt like years to a reddening Mike as Wally stood face to face with him, about three feet away.  Mike blinked awkwardly and visibly salivated, his mouth hanging open in a way that didn’t complement his ears.  Wally eyeballed him and looked past him to the far wall.  “Um…  Can I just get past please?” he asked.  Mike apologised.  “Oh of course – sure.  Sorry.”  “Thanks,” muttered Wally and squeezed through the gap.

Mike gawped towards Sinead.  “It’s Wally!” he just about managed to say.  “I know it’s Wally,” she said, “We were just talking about him – why are you so surprised?!”  “I think I’m a little starstruck, that’s all,” he oozed.  “Did I come across as cool?”  “Oh yeah, so cool.  You didn’t seem like a nutcase at all, that’s for sure.”  Mike jumped excitedly.  “Do you think he’d sign me an autograph?!”  “Don’t harass the man – everywhere he goes people point at him and gape.  Let him have just one normal evening in a pub.”

Mike, a little deflated, sat back down.  Suddenly, his eyes gleamed with the excitement of a wonderful discovery.  “He’s left his binoculars!  There at the bar.  I could go and give them back to him!”  “Just leave them Mike – he’ll be coming back from the lav in a second.”  “But what if he didn’t mean to leave them?”  “I’m pretty sure he did mean it and he won’t thank you for covering the lenses with your grubby fingerprints in a childish attempt to curry favour with him.  Sit tight, he’ll be back shortly.”

But Wally didn’t come back.  After half an hour’s no-show, a feverish Mike burst into the loos to assail him with his open autograph book and a manic smile only to find an open window and a running tap.  Wally was gone, like a whisper, a phantom, a zephyr – embarked upon his next assignment, hotfooting it to the quayside to make the last ship to Caracas and rendezvous with his contact under the cover of darkness in the mid-Atlantic, where nobody of any importance could overhear their coded communications and decipher the true impact of their words and the consequences for the financial superpowers of the western world.

Mike scratched his head in amazement.  There was one question on his lips…